Different year, same task: Beat UConn

For the second consecutive year, Stanford faces UConn in Final Four

Updated: April 1, 2009, 11:27 PM ET
Associated Press

STANFORD, Calif. -- Jayne Appel rolled past the eucalyptus trees and up to Maples Pavilion on her shiny red bicycle, reclining her 6-foot-4 frame in the seat. The Stanford center wore a T-shirt with three huge words on the chest: "Biggest. Upset. Ever."

The shirt is a souvenir of Stanford's astonishing football victory over USC in 2007, but it's no stretch to see its significance in Appel's next endeavor with her Cardinal teammates: They're headed to the Final Four in St. Louis this weekend to face mighty Connecticut, which is prohibitively favored to cap its undefeated season with an NCAA title.

Appel scored a school-record 46 points in the Cardinal's 20th straight victory on Monday, yet Stanford (33-4) knows it's just as much of an underdog as anybody who tangles with the physically fearsome, high-scoring, media-darling Huskies (37-0), who haven't even allowed an opponent to finish within 10 points of them.

"But last year, they were the team that was supposed to win it as well," Appel recalled. "As (coach) Tara (VanDerveer) says, that's why we play the games."

After surviving a rugged Berkeley Regional to reach back-to-back Final Fours for the first time this decade, the Cardinal seem pretty much finished feeling pressure for the year. They're enjoying a few relaxing days on their idyllic campus before heading off to a game in which the Huskies will shoulder all the expectations.

What's more, Stanford is still the last team to beat UConn, winning 82-73 in the semifinals at last season's Final Four. If anybody can topple the Huskies, why shouldn't it be the calm, tournament-tested Cardinal?

"We ended their season last year, so they're highly motivated to play us," senior Jillian Harmon said. "You can tell. They've been talking about us for a few weeks now. … We have to play well, (but) we don't have to play a perfect game. We didn't play the perfect game last year, and it'll probably be a little tougher this year, but we'll have a chance."

Stanford finished the regular season ranked No. 2 behind UConn in the Top 25 polls after winning the Pac-10 regular-season and tournament titles, yet the Cardinal received only a second seed in the NCAA tournament. VanDerveer has become resigned to such slights for West Coast teams over her wildly successful quarter-century at Stanford, but she realizes UConn's unbeaten run deserves much -- if not quite all -- of the hype it's getting.

"They have great TV coverage. They have great media coverage. They travel, like, 60 reporters," VanDerveer said with a grin. "Let's just play the game, and we just have to play well. I don't want to get caught up in all the hyperbole of it. That's part of the excitement. Roll the ball out there, and let's see what we've got."

Although VanDerveer and UConn coach Geno Auriemma have been in their share of disagreements over the years while competing for titles and recruits on opposite coasts, she admiringly refers to Auriemma as "the kid in school that will get in a fight with everybody, but you like him."

VanDerveer has coached just two undefeated teams in her career: a junior varsity squad at Ohio State that went 8-0, and the U.S. Olympic team in 1995-96, which went 60-0.

"I was a mess both times," VanDerveer said. "Geno handles it well. He's comfortable with being a front-runner and being undefeated. Maybe it's the personality of Stanford student-athletes. We're comfortable being under the radar, and comfortable being a No. 2 seed."

That doesn't mean Stanford isn't working furiously on a way to stop UConn's powerful lineup, which doesn't go terribly deep, but doesn't need to. VanDerveer spent Wednesday morning on the phone with Arizona State coach Charli Turner Thorne, who gave her former coach a full page of notes on ways to slow down the Huskies, just as the Sun Devils did for part of their regional final loss on Tuesday night.

"I'd rather prepare for Connecticut with five days than with one," VanDerveer said when asked if she's disappointed the showdown won't decide the title. "Of all the three teams (including Louisville and Oklahoma), I'd most like to have five days to prepare for Connecticut."

But thanks to last year, Stanford doesn't need to be convinced it can beat the Huskies. Although star Candice Wiggins graduated, Appel, Harmon and sophomore starters Jeanette Pohlen and Kayla Pedersen were part of last season's team, which knocked off UConn in Tampa before losing the title game to Tennessee.

"The whole weekend is a whirlwind," Harmon said. "I think the most nervous I was, was before the first practice, when you had 20,000 people watching you. … Even though we were kind of awe-struck, we settled down and concentrated on our first game. We just have to do that again."


Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press